Pig in a cage

Despite recent House testimony by highly credentialed whistleblowers, we do not know if spacefaring extraterrestrial organisms have ever visited Earth. However, the mere possibility of their existence raises an important challenge for our continued exploitation of animals here on earth. 

The decision to use or refrain from using animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and research is often framed as a personal choice: a matter of individual preference, no more subject to criticism than the choice of jazz vs rock and roll, horror vs comedy, or vanilla vs mint chocolate chip. But what if another species were to view us as food, sources of entertainment, or medical research subjects? I suspect that we would discover quite quickly that a practice cannot be justified merely by calling it a personal choice.

We sometimes defend our consumption of animals by referencing the deep cultural significance of such practices for communities across the globe. Respecting cultural differences is crucial for creating a world where diverse experiments in living can escape the homogenizing influence of dominant cultures, and we ignore this aim at our peril—especially when the dignity of those historically oppressed is at stake. 

But it becomes clear that cultural significance is insufficient to justify a practice as soon we consider a hypothetical community of extraterrestrials who believe that spiritual salvation comes from showing reverence, gratitude, and respect for the planets they visit by ritualistically subsisting on those planets’ most cognitively advanced organisms (on our planet, Homo sapiens). We would rightly object to such treatment regardless of that extraterrestrial community’s reverance for that ritualistic consumption practice or their position in hierarchies of domination that exist far beyond the Milky Way; neither fact would make our deaths less tragic for us. 

Some argue that only humans have rights against being killed and eaten because we alone possess a uniquely sophisticated set of cognitive abilities: speaking in grammatical sentences, acting for complex reasons, and reflecting on a first-person psychological sense of self. The ableism of this argument provides sufficient grounds to reject it, as we ought to connect our right to life to features that are inclusive of humans with significant cognitive impairments. 

But the extent of this argument’s flaws is made even more clear when we consider a hypothetical extraterrestrial species that possesses an ability–call it X–that is as inscrutable to us as calculus is to frogs and toads. If that species comes to harvest us, we will derive little solace from the knowledge that X enables our captors to appear to violate the laws of physics, deliberate with exponentially greater speed and efficiency than our most advanced super computers, and access a realm of experience beyond our wildest dreams. 

In other words, the mere existence of disparities in cognitive abilities between the exploiter and the exploited is insufficient to justify exploitation; the loss of your life is not rendered any less tragic to you merely because there is greater richness in the lives of your killers.

I am not suggesting that we should ignore the differences between species, pretend that every individual of every species should have exactly the same rights, or abandon the idea that there are ways we humans are unique in comparison to all other life on earth. Sophisticated and powerful extraterrestrials could similarly, due to their capacities, be justified in noting ways that their ways of life differ from our own and treating us in accordance with such differences: snails cannot exercise a right to free speech, and extraterrestrial communities may enjoy rights that are analogously beyond our comprehension. 

Nor am I suggesting that we make prudential calculations to win favor with potential extraterrestrials. We do not yet know whether such organisms even exist or if changes in our way of life would inspire them to treat us more favorably. 

Instead, I am inviting you to join me in looking back at our activities through the extraterrestrial mirror. Re-examine, one by one, the justifications for our various practices of animal exploitation by imagining how they would strike us if uttered by advanced extraterrestrials. When these justifications strike us as repugnant, we must, on pain of hypocrisy, search for new justifications or transform, replace, or abandon the practices that they had previously propped up.


Dr. Aaron Yarmel is the Associate Director of the Center for Ethics and Human Values at The Ohio State University, where he oversees all programming and leads efforts on dialogue facilitation and outreach. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an MSc in Philosophy of Science from the London School of Economics, and a Bachelor of Music from the Eastman School of Music.